University life in Ouagadougou

I (Nancy) have been meeting with the students who live in the Student Hostel one by one in order to get to know them. I have learned a great deal not only about their individual lives, but also about the challenges that face ordinary Burkinabe children who wish to pursue their education. Here are some of the situations that our students have lived through:

  • Several students left home when they reached the equivalent of Grade 6 (sixieme in the French system) because there was no middle school or high school in their home town. They move to a larger center where they live with a relative – sometimes just an older sibling. Some of our students have been living among students without adult supervision from the time they were 13 or 14!
  • Several students have had to figure out how to pay for their studies even before they get to university. In fact, even public education costs money. So if the student’s parents cannot afford to send him/her to school then he/she has to make enough money to cover the cost of studies. Many students have worked alongside their studies or in the summer time and put themselves through high school.
  • One student had to attend night school so that he could work during the day. The problem is that night school does not give the student the same number of hours and so in exam years (see below) the night school students are at a clear disadvantage. This student found a family connection who was willing to cover his costs for the two exam years. Although he had not had the equivalent preparation as the other students in his class, he passed the exams when he was able to study full-time.
  • Once the students arrive at university, financial costs are not the greatest challenge they face. If they have good results from their BAC exam which they take at the end of high school, they only need to pay the equivalent of $30.00 to register. As well, the state provides a small assistance for those students. However, there is no possibility of getting student loans, so the students still need either family support or else financial opportunities in order to cover their living expenses.
  • The greater challenge for many students is the sheer number of classmates. Some first year programs have over 2,000 students. Rather than dividing them into smaller groups, these 2,000 plus students sit in the same conference hall to take core classes with one professor. Those students who are at the back may not be able to see what is written on the blackboard, but that is not an acceptable excuse for not passing an exam!
  • The professors often make the first year extremely challenging in order to reduce the numbers in the upper years. One student told me in first year there were over 1800 students, but only 500 (less than one-third!) passed into second year!
  • Along with huge classes, the students must also put up with very irregular schedules. One program puts out the course schedule week by week rather than semester by semester. From one week to the next your classes may be offered on different days or at different times. This means that it is very difficult to have any other commitments (such as regular work hours.) Classes can start as early as 7:00 AM or go as late as 9:00 PM and there are frequently classes or even exams on Saturday mornings.
  •  Many times the professors engage in other activities to augment their salaries. When there is a conflict between teaching at the public university and other activities, it is often the university that is deprived. Therefore, in certain classes it is difficult to get all the required hours in or to cover the required content before the exam period. This also affects the students’ ability to be successful in their program.
  • Several years ago, there were a series of strikes by students who were dissatisfied with a number of things on campus. As a result, many programs no longer follow the usual academic calendar. Some students graduate from high school in July and wait an entire year (June of the following year) to begin their studies. What is particular difficult about this is that the students are not contacted and given a date for the beginning of their program. It is their responsibility to keep track by visiting the campus regularly or by asking another student who is on campus to check for them. One student came to Ouagadougou (from her home 400 KM away) for a wedding and then stayed because the program began a few days later!
  • Many of the students do not have computers. It is possible, however, for a professor to make reading material available only electronically. One student finally had access to the material needed to prepare for an exam three days before the exam. While he was not able to read all of it, he got enough information to pass.

In spite of these many challenges, our students are succeeding in their studies. They face a great deal of odds with courage and faith. I am very proud of them.

The organization of the elementary and high school system in Burkina Faso:

Primary school (not counting kindergarten) is six years. At the end of primary school, the students write an exam. Those who pass are allowed to go on to the next stage. They are awarded a Certificate: abbreviated as CEPE.

The next stage is called “college” and lasts for four years: 6, 5, 4, 3. At the end of the level called “third” they write another exam. Those who pass receive the BPC or Brevet and are allowed to go on to the next level. ) It is not unusual for a student to take this exam several times. Many students drop out at this point if they are not successful.

The final three years are taken at “lycee”: 2nd, 1st and terminal. At this point, the student is oriented into a particular area: arts (history, geography, languages), sciences and maths, or business (secretarial or accounting. The student who continues on to university will be streamed into programs that correspond to the courses he/she took at lycee.

At the end of the third year, the students write a series of exams (including a four-hour philosophy exam!) as well as taking oral exams in certain classes. The students who pass are awarded a Baccalaureate and may go on to university. It is not unusual for a student to take this exam several times.


A Visit to the Benin Bible Institute

Bruce, Jeremiah, Deborah and I left our home in Benin on June 23, 2009, almost four years ago now. I was delighted to have the opportunity to return for a visit last week after the Benin Bible Institute (BBI) asked me to come and teach a class. I was in Benin from April 12 through April 21.

When we lived in Cotonou, Benin, Bruce and I taught regularly in the different programs of the Benin Bible Institute. BBI began as a systematic Bible training program in 1994. Since then, it has offered a three-year seminar program in Bible and Theology that attracts students from many different denominations. Most of the students are lay people who want to understand their faith better, or who feel ill-equipped for the ministries and services they offer to their local congregation. Many serve as Sunday School teachers, occasional preachers, choir members, worship leaders, Bible study leaders, or as leaders in the church in a variety of other capacities. Currently around 250 students are studying in the seminar program that offers nine monthly seminars each year.

Several years ago, once the Beninese trained faculty returned from study abroad, BBI began another program that was designed specifically for pastors and people involved in full-time ministry. This program is also offered in seminar format, but the program is more academically challenging and involves more hours. It is in this program that I taught the “History of Missions” class: thirty hours in five days to fourteen students!

Alongside teaching, I was delighted to see how things have progressed at BBI, especially in technology. I observed a Saturday seminar taught with the assistance of power point. I was astonished to find that BBI now has Wi-Fi. While my students were writing the final exam, I was able to follow events in Boston via the CBC News website. It was a firsthand experience of the strange new global world we live in.

BBI has continued to offer a viable and practical program to many Christians in Benin. Now BBI is launching an agricultural training program as well. A number of years ago, BBI purchased a farm and hoped to offer practical training to pastors and others who might live outside of urban settings. A candidate was hired to set up the program and after receiving special training has begun with crop production and livestock. Soon students will be welcomed to the site to learn about effective methods of crop production along with non-traditional livestock such as snails and rabbits (which are fairly new to the Beninese diet.)

I am grateful to God for BBI’s many years of faithful assistance to the people of Benin.

FEMO’s Ministry in Historical Perspective

This week Pastor Bananzaro offered his reflections on FEMO's on going ministry with university students here in Ouagadougou.

This week Pastor Bananzaro offered his reflections on FEMO’s ongoing ministry with university students here in Ouagadougou.

Bruce had a chance to sit with Pastor Bananzaro this past week and hear about the development of FEMO. Here is what he learned:

When the Evangelical Mennonite Church of Burkina Faso (EEMBF, Eglise Evangélique Mennonite de Burkina Faso) started the Mennonite Youth Hostel of Ouagadougou (FEMO, Foyer de l’Eglise Mennonite d’Ouagadougou) a number of years ago, church leaders wanted to provide housing and spiritual stability to Mennonite students new to the university and big city life. But it has become much more than that. These were the words of Calixte Bananzaro, pastor to FEMO residents and the Ouagadougou Mennonite congregation.

Besides providing a home for recently arrived Mennonite young people, FEMO has developed into a church community. Together with former students and a few families that have joined the group, hostel residents participate in a fledgling Mennonite congregation that celebrated Easter by moving into its new, permanent location from rented facilities. Thanks to support from North American partners, FEMO was able to buy a lot of it own close to the university campus. The students have moved in and the congregation is able to meet on the site, although renovations are ongoing.

The ministry of FEMO has developed in ways its founders had not foreseen in its seven years of existence. According to Bananzaro, the congregation that has sprung from the initiative provides its residents with a kind of “training ground” for spiritual leadership. In Burkinabe churches those who have a university education of any sort are called upon to provide leadership, even if they have no theological or ministry training. The Ouagadougou congregation has been a place where FEMO residents can hone leadership skills through leading worship, preaching, teaching Sunday school, filling other congregational roles, and sometimes attending local ministry training programs. Bananzaro noted that former FEMO residents have expressed gratitude for such learning opportunities after discovering that their university degrees entail leadership expectations in the church that go far beyond their professional identities.

In addition, the presence of a number of students from other denominations has meant that FEMO has provided an increased awareness of the Mennonite Church and its Anabaptist distinctives in the wider Burkinabe church community. The EEMBF is a small denomination with congregations in a limited geographical area. Pastor Bananzaro noted that non-Mennonite FEMO residents often act as “unofficial emissaries” to their home churches. Their testimony has resulted in an increased appreciation for Mennonite faith and ministry in the larger Burkinabe confessional milieu.

Perhaps the next seven years will result in even more unanticipated ministries! The new FEMO site increases the capacity from twenty-four to thirty residents. The congregation has also secured land on which a daughter congregation can be planted on the outskirts of the city. Such progress lays the base for a strong and vibrant Mennonite presence in Ouagadougou in the coming years.

A Rose by Another Name Would Not be a Rose

On Sunday at the Mennonite Church of Ouagadougou I (Nancy) preached on “enemy love” and Jesus’ command to love one’s enemies. I then shared some stories of Mennonites and Anabaptists who have demonstrated enemy love in the past. One of the examples was Dirk Willem. For those of you who don’t know the story here is a brief synopsis:

Dirk Willem was an Anabaptist preacher who was imprisoned for his faith. He managed to escape from prison and was fleeing on foot when he was spotted and the soldiers gave chase. He came to a lightly frozen pond and – due to his small size and light weight – he crossed the pond. One of the soldiers who gave chase was not so lucky and fell through. Dirk went back and rescued his pursuer who then re-arrested him. This time Dirk was locked up more securely and did not manage to escape again. He was executed, dying a martyr’s death.

I invited the congregation to reflect on the story and give their impressions. Now if, like me, you grew up in a Mennonite church and are familiar with this story, Dirk is a hero who kept the faith at the cost of his life. To the young people in Ouagadougou, however, the story should have had a different ending! Like the crossing of the Red Sea, Dirk was saved by God who drowned his enemies. He should have kept going, praising God who fought on his behalf! Dirk failed to discern correctly what God was doing!

From my perspective, this interpretation is near blasphemy, but it makes very good sense to anyone not brought up on stories from The Martyr’s Mirror! Maybe a rose that is called something else really isn’t a rose after all!

Easter at the Mennonite Church of Ouagadougou

The FEMO choir

The FEMO choir

“I am following you, Jesus, through the torn curtain” sang the choir in four parts. The choir’s contribution was just one of the many highlights of the Easter morning service at the Mennonite Church of Ouagadougou. The children sang several songs, including “Celebrate, Jesus, celebrate.”        The drums kept up a steady beat and at one point continued on for ten minutes after we finished singing. The joy on the drummers’ faces matched the joy in the congregation. We were celebrating two things at once: first, the resurrection of Jesus and second, our new church home.

DrummersAfter seven years, the student hostel has finally moved out of rented facilities and into the church’s own building. The move took place on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. Some of the students jokingly said they were on their way to Canaan. The hostel includes meeting space for the congregation so we will hold our worship services at the new site.

As usual, the congregation was a young crowd and the exuberant service was full of youthful energy. We were also pleased to see some of the builders join us for the service: the mason with his wife and the painter had been specially invited to celebrate the first service in the new building that they had worked hard to get ready in time for Easter.


Pastor Bananzaro

Pastor Bananzaro read through the last hours of Jesus life and the story of his resurrection. He reminded us that Jesus promises to be with us always until the end of the age. He encouraged us to share this good news with the people we know who are anxious, discouraged and suffering. We have peace because we know that nothing is impossible for God.

After the sermon, Samuel, one of the children in the Sunday School prayed for the pastor. His simple prayer was a fitting end to our meditation: he prayed that God would bless the pastor and help us to listen to the pastor and to do what he told us to do.

After the service we enjoyed a potluck meal with plenty of delicious food. Some of our new neighbors from the surrounding houses joined us for the meal.

Oumarou Dakuyo

Oumarou (pronounced “Ooh-ma-roo) is one of the first faces you will see if you arrive at the student hostel on Sunday morning. He is one of two or three students waiting at the door to greet people as they arrive for the Sunday service. He is a natural greeter with a friendly, open face and a ready smile. He is a regular at all of the events at the residence, not just Sunday worship.

I only recently learned more about Oumarou. After he graduated from high school with his BAC, he was not sure he could go to university. The university is located far from his home and he does not have relatives with whom he could stay. Therefore, he would be required to find lodgings and pay rent. The students are given a modest assistance from the state (to the tune of $300.00 a year), but it often takes a few months for the money to be distributed. The students are on their own in the meantime. Renters in the capital, Ouagadougou, often have to pay two or three months’ rent as an advance before moving into their lodgings. Oumarou comes from a farming family where spare cash is a scarce commodity. His family would not be able to help him pay his rent. This fact alone could have prevented him from pursuing his studies.

Oumarou has an older friend from the same village who lived at the Mennonite student residence. This friend told Oumarou about the hostel and Oumarou asked if there would be room for him. There was a bed available and Oumarou moved in. Thanks to the student hostel, he is able to pursue his dream of becoming a doctor while also growing stronger in his Christian faith.